By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 2, 2009
The months-long battle over Prince William County's crackdown on illegal immigration has largely subsided, but not before giving rise to a potent new force in local politics: stay-at-home moms.
About a dozen mothers who banded together to battle the county's hard-line position on immigration are now among the area's most civically engaged residents. They attend board meetings and influence votes. They have created an active blog and are serving on county advisory boards and commissions.
And they do much of it with children in tow. Alanna Almeda's girls practice gymnastics in the hall while she listens to county supervisors debate. Elena Schlossberg testifies with her 3-year-old, Rachel, on her hip, and her 6-year-old, Eli, hanging onto her leg.
The women say they provided a tempered, alternative voice when emotions on illegal immigration ran hot. Now they want that approach to permeate other debates on topics that interest them, such as preserving more land in the face of development.
"I wouldn't call myself a leader," said Schlossberg, 40, of Haymarket. "But in a crowd of people, I was never afraid to make my voice heard, even if I stood alone. You don't have to be an expert. You just have to be able to say, 'That doesn't sound right.' "
Almeda and Schlossberg were the first of their group to get involved. The two crossed paths in spring 2006 when Almeda joined efforts to conserve 230 acres of county park land. The women reconnected later that year to fight Dominion Virginia Power's plan to build a 65-mile high-voltage power line through rural Northern Virginia.
When the illegal immigration battle started to flare, Almeda knew right away that she wanted her voice to be heard. Her husband, Rosendo, gained permanent residency in 1996, four years after they got married.
"It was as if they were saying he wasn't making a contribution or worthy of being here," she said of the county's foray into illegal immigration. "It was like saying it was a mistake to allow him to gain legal status and it would be a mistake to do it for this new group."
But she was surprised when she saw Schlossberg at a July board meeting, where proposed immigration laws were on the agenda. "We're probably not going to be on the same side on this one," Almeda, 39, of Gainesville, said at first. "Don't be so sure," Schlossberg replied.
Katherine M. Gotthardt joined the fray, too. Last summer, Gotthardt's daughters were on the swings, singing a rhyme they had heard on the playground: "I don't want to go to Mexico no more. . . . There's a big, fat guy at the door. . . . If you open it up, he'll [urinate] on the floor. . . . I don't want to go to Mexico no more."
She admonished her daughters. A few weeks later, she heard that immigrant parents were afraid to send their children to school for fear they would be deported.
"It was clear the culture the county created was affecting the kids," said Gotthardt, 39, an educator with a background in English for Speakers of Other Languages. That's when she decided to address the Board of County Supervisors. As an English composition teacher, Gotthardt's expertise is crafting a message. Schlossberg's knack is organizing and identifying elected officials who might be sympathetic to their cause. Almeda, a programmer for the U.S. Department of Transportation until she had her youngest, brings technical know-how.
More mothers introduced themselves, home numbers were exchanged and eventually the women were talking daily. Almeda learned how to make conference calls so they could discuss strategy.
A real expansion came when the women took their battle to the blogosphere, becoming key voices on the "open dialogue" Web site called Anti-Black Velvet Bruce Li. The site was formed in response to a longer-running conservative blog, Black Velvet Bruce Li by Greg Letiecq.
Letiecq said he is still waiting for the mothers to present a clear vision.
"They've gotten engaged, that's for sure," he said. "They loudly complain about people they don't agree with. Outside of that, they haven't presented a positive solution that will help preserve the community."
The mothers' opinions have enlivened an already vigorous local blog scene. Letiecq's blog gets an average of 1,500 hits a day. Theirs gets 1,300.
The women have also tried to be a presence at the county's weekly board meetings at 2 p.m., a time of day that lends itself to the involvement of stay-at-home moms.
"What they have is flexibility in their schedule," said Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles), who supports the women's efforts although they don't always agree.
He should know. His wife, Kris, a stay-at-home mom and court-appointed special advocate for children, serves on a county panel that will craft the county's human services policy.
Kris, 33, says she's fighting a perception that when women become mothers they fade into the background.
"Just because I have children doesn't mean I'm leaving the community, even if I'm not a member of the workforce," she said. "Because I'm a mom, I'm drawn to do things that enrich the community."
As a political force, the women have become more aggressive. In September, Schlossberg and Almeda rallied residents against the appointment of Robert L. Duecaster, a provocative critic of illegal immigration, to the human-services panel.
They didn't win that debate. But they did force supervisors to explain their votes publicly.
The women claimed a victory earlier in the year when they took advantage of fissures on the board and persuaded moderate supervisors to adjust the county's immigration policy. In April, the board told police officers that they may question criminal suspects about their immigration status only after they have been arrested.
During the board's month-long debate over the budget, Almeda sometimes made two 90-minute round trips a day to catch the exchanges. That meant fast-food dinners for the kids and late-night snacks from the vending machine. Esperanza, 7, and Claudia, 10, practiced gymnastics routines in the board's lobby.
"It can be all-consuming if you let it," she said of maintaining an activist's lifestyle. "There have been times when it has been."
Her husband, who often works 12-hour days laying fiber-optic cable for an electrical contractor, said he is too busy to follow the details of Prince William's politics. He said he wishes Alanna had more balance between family and politics.
"I think she went too crazy," said Rosendo, 41.
Illegal immigration drew many of the moms into the political scene, said Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville). But they are increasingly weighing in on other issues.
"They have broadened their response," he said. "They have a stronger, more educated voice because they are branching out."
Although the women initially planned to create a formal organization to accompany their blog, they decided to stay loosely structured, just in case life gets in the way.